“Yeah!! Thank God he’s finally dead. I’ve been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!” Bret Easton Ellis posted this Tweet in January this year, as the net began to buzz with news of reclusive author JD Salinger’s death. Ellis’ Tweet could be read as a clever cipher for his own authorial career. It was at once funny and offensive (that coolly dismissive full stop after dead). Self-parody and personal revelation were coyly intertwined, as Ellis gave the outraged readers who re-posted and dissected the text just what they expected from the ageing literary brat and frequently reviled cult author. But, for those in on the joke, context pushed humour in the direction of confession. For Ellis’ first novel, Less Than Zero, to which Imperial Bedrooms (Picador, 256pp; $32.99) is the sequel, has been burdened since it first appeared in 1985 – when the author was only 21 – by comparison with Salinger’s coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye.
Both Ellis and Salinger witnessed their generation-defining works being absorbed so powerfully into popular culture that it was as if all rational thought had been skipped and they passed straight through the mucous membranes. Both men became that rare thing, the writer-as-celebrity, with personas that fed into the auras of their books. But Salinger’s fame grew out of his reclusive withdrawal from the world of letters two years after the 1951 publication of Catcher, while Ellis took the reverse path, becoming an entirely public person (or so it seemed), closely associated with Less Than Zero’s hero, Clay, who, back in Los Angeles from college on the East Coast, chronicles a shiftless Christmas with his friends.
As Ellis recounts in the “autobiographical” first chapter of his novel Lunar Park (2005), he parlayed this first novel about the clubbing and coke-snorting lost children of the ’80s into more cocaine, Cristal, VIP rooms and beach clubs. He quickly followed it up with another book about alienated youth, The Rules of Attraction (1987), which he claims in Lunar Park was actually his first novel – but “at this point of my career I could have submitted the notes I had taken in my junior year Virginia Woolf course and would still have received the huge advance and copious amounts of publicity.” Almost simultaneously, Less Than Zero was released as a surprisingly moralistic film about poorly parented kids parenting each other, which brought short-lived stardom to Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz, and launched the troubled career of Robert Downey Jnr in his break-out role as the tragic Julian, forced by his dealer to work as a rent boy.
Ellis’ immersion in the milieu of his books gave them extra frisson. But in 1991, when he published American Psycho, his novel about yuppie serial-killer Patrick Bateman, many read its sickening first-person scenes of misogynistic torture as the fantasies of Ellis himself; even if you didn’t, it was hard to feel warmly toward him. The sinisterly preppy author, posing in smart suits in glossy magazines, seemed uncomfortably close to his narrator, who bantered with his Wall Street colleagues about tiepins and sweater vests between killing sprees. (In fact, among the many online responses castigating Ellis as a “douche” for his Salinger Tweet, one enraged correspondent suggested that he had been “too busy picking up and returning videotapes” to appreciate the older writer’s work – a reference to Bateman’s often-repeated alibi, which becomes a kind of jokey refrain in the book.) In later interviews, Ellis would express surprise that American Psycho had prompted death threats, that the commissioning publisher Simon & Schuster had refused to publish it, and that a book tour had been cancelled; in Lunar Park, he would describe writing it as “an extremely disturbing experience”. For him the novel was an embodiment of the “vast apathy during the height of the Reagan eighties”.
Certainly, it was one of the ironies of Ellis’ career that a book about bull-market America’s inability to feel anything beneath its polished surfaces stirred up such depths of loathing and fandom – as was his shock that many readers lacked the sophistication to read his work as satire without some authorial direction, both within and outside the book.
Following The Informers (1994) and Glamorama (1998), Lunar Park appeared, finally, to offer some kind of sop to a 21st-century readership hooked on confession and atonement. Yet the narrator ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ surveying his career had acquired an entirely fictitious film-star wife. This threw his other ‘revelations’, including his appearances on episodes of Family Ties, The Facts of Life and Melrose Place, into doubt. Rather like JM Coetzee, Ellis was having fun with his public avatar, offering so much interior ‘self??’ that it in turn became a kind of surface – but without the Nobel Prize-winner’s high seriousness. For Lunar Park morphed swiftly into homage to Stephen King’s suburban nightmares complete with a possessed child’s toy-bird – a homicidal Terby. In fact Ellis had been seeding his Didion-inspired California Gothic with low-rent genres for some time: vampires in The Informers and a models-turned-terrorists thriller plot in Glamorama. Perhaps what was most disturbing of all about American Psycho was the way it flipped between name-checking yuppie satire and violent porno. In retrospect, he had not just been reflecting the MTV-generation’s apathy, but had been weirdly ahead of the curve in anticipating new shifts in popular feeling. For, just as Less than Zero was the dark precursor to the anodyne pleasures of The Hills, these later novels anticipated programs such as Dexter and True Blood, in which hilarity and gore coexist without moral comment. Perhaps Ellis was a moralist in his own strange way, since he always seemed to show these new trends in their worst light, catching the terrifying blankness in his protagonist’s souls.
Imperial Bedrooms, whose title, like Less Than Zero, is taken from an Elvis Costello song, continues this Moebian play with genre-bending and pseudo-revelation. From its opening line, released as a teaser before the novel was published – “They had made a movie about us” – Ellis insists his first book was an unreliable fiction. The narrator of Imperial Bedrooms is not, as the reader might expect, Clay grown up; rather, he is the older, ‘real’ Clay. The author of Less Than Zero, he tells us, was a college mate, who stole large parts of his life. These opening pages of Imperial Bedrooms are the most enjoyable, as Clay goes through this “hijacking” in forensic detail, outlining the characters’ “real” relationships, and how they felt about the book and movie: Julian hated them, and girlfriend Blair was actually in love with the author (and yes, the book’s infamous scene in which a snuff film is screened was true). But this is a darkly nihilistic move, since ‘Clay’ owned the only small apportionment of moral conscience, or at least disgust, in Less Than Zero. In these first few pages Ellis effectively kills him off as a gen-X Holden Caulfield. (Party tonight!!!)
The ‘real’ Clay is now a New York-based film producer, moving in the lower strata of the high life, with less real power than he would like. Arriving in Los Angeles, he becomes obsessed with Rain, a beautiful but untalented hostess who wants to be in his film (echoes here of the Phil Spector murder). Almost immediately, sinister forms of surveillance begin to stalk him. Clay becomes Rain’s exploiter and crosses paths with other exploiters, moving toward the same shadows inhabited by Patrick Bateman. But there is little more to the slim paranoia-driven plot of Imperial Bedroom than the surprise – in an era that expects transformations – of seeing so many of its characters remain so little changed; they are only more dangerous and, as Clay comes to describe himself, more “dead inside”. Rip, Julian’s dealer, is more sinister; Julian has survived his addictions and his romanticised death in the movie (expiring between Blair and Clay in a sports car in the middle of a yucca-filled desert), only to be murdered at Clay’s instigation early on in Imperial Bedrooms. But Ellis’ injection of thriller elements reads less like an entertaining provocation than an attempt to keep his novel from flatlining, as the ennui plunges further below zero. It is particularly disappointing to find much of the first novel’s dark humour purged, although the sleek American subject-verb-object drive of Ellis’ prose remains. The dark things at the fringes of Less Than Zero were very real, Ellis seems to suggest, and much worse than you might think. Gradually it becomes clear that Imperial Bedrooms is replaying the structure of Less Than Zero, as an older Ellis takes a perverse glee in crushing every last youthful breath out of the work. Of course, the old college mate who hijacked Clay’s story, a “blond and isolated boy” so lost in his own passivity that he observed everybody “flatly”, must have been ‘Bret Easton Ellis’. And so the book is absorbed into the perverse hall of mirrors Ellis has been creating out of his work for the last two decades – while the author withdraws further into the strange seclusion of his many, and very public, selves.
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